How HR can introduce “innovation” into organisations


Decusatio’s Emma Montocchio says innovation requires different input from an HR perspective.

“I want to build an innovative, tech-savvy team that can make us responsive to the changing business environment – and I want you to make sure we do it!”

Many HR professionals have probably encountered this challenge from their executive teams and wondered how exactly finding “innovative” people is achieved in a practical sense. Is it somebody who has done a TED talk? Somebody with a degree in innovation? Or is it a case of buying up a disruptive start-up in your sector and hoping that some of their innovation rubs off on you?

The reality is, few organisations have a genuine innovation strategy, and until you define this strategy, it will be very hard for your HR function to introduce innovation into your organisation.

Open or closed innovation?

Before investing in people, you need to look at the type of innovation you are looking to introduce as part of your innovation strategy. Closed innovation happens internally within the business, and a common way to inspire such innovation is through what is traditionally known as “intrapreneurship”. This is the exercise of allowing team members to act as entrepreneurs while working within the constraints of the business. By empowering them to think, act, and create their own ideas your business can benefit from a widespread internal culture of ongoing innovation.

Starbucks is a perfect example of closed innovation as the business has had to respond to the rise of the coffee café culture. The executive leadership wished to respond to the rise of competitors and needed to find ways to differentiate themselves. Through their use of technology and understanding of the client base, they used their digital ecosystem to allow clients to order in advance, allowing for a more personalised coffee experience.

Open innovation, on the other hand, can be achieved through an “external accelerator”, such as an independent innovation strategist. Such a consultant, who can bring a refreshing new pair of eyes and expertise, can develop new ideas for your business that align with your business needs and goals. Additionally, they can also open your eyes to advantageous approaches that were not initially considered as a part of your goals. A perfect example of this is Lego – the toy business that was forced to radically reinvent itself into an education business.

Lego coined a brilliant phrase as part of their internal innovation strategy document: “People don’t have to work for us, to work with us.”

They developed an online website that invited consumers to design their own Lego sets and once there was sufficient demand for a certain type of product, it was put into development. Through this, Lego was able to harness the power of the crowd and gamify the research and development process.

Where HR meets innovation

As you can see, there are very distinct types of innovation, and they will require very different input from a human capital or human resources perspective.

If you are pursuing a closed innovation strategy, you can look at your existing staff complement and identify those with entrepreneurial traits and a keen understanding of your business and its operating landscape. Often organisations find themselves working in silos and this prevents the sharing of ideas that could benefit up- or- downstream in the organisation.

Importantly “Innovation” should not just be considered as something that technology or business development teams contribute towards – teams like finance will have acute understanding of the financial levers in your business that might not be obvious to other teams.Similarly, you could make use of customers or suppliers who may be able to highlight pain points or areas where greater efficiency could be achieved.

When it comes to open innovation, a popular strategy is to partner with start-ups doing interesting things in your industry. This provides a win-win for both the corporate and the start-up, who both benefit from fostering closer relationships with each other. The larger corporate gets a chance to hear what the start-ups find interesting, and the start-ups enjoy the benefit of building relationships with industry partners with access to larger budgets who could be strategic partners down the line.

More and more, there is a demand to build innovative teams, and identifying the right human capital to execute will be a key part of the HR function. To succeed here, you will need a roadmap and pre-identified goals that your team can buy into.

South Africa faces a myriad challenges, and innovative thinking will be key to solving many of these challenges. Is your organisation up to it?

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